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Thursday, March 25, 2004

Light and Color (J. W. M. Turner, 1843)

Personal Knowledge Processing and Knowledge Management

In the opening blog of "All Life is Problem Solving", I gave a general account of how problem solving occurs in living things including humans. In my second post I focused on problem solving at the organizational level. Here I want to develop some ideas about Personal Knowledge Processing and Knowledge Management.

Personal Knowledge Processing

If we want to get beyond the trivial view that all individual decision making and action involves knowledge processing, in the sense that every decision we take is based on knowledge that we use, we need to make a distinction between knowledge use and knowledge processing. Much of personal knowledge processing is routine in the sense that it involves the use of memory, expectations, and predispositions to actions in situational contexts, to supplement and change our beliefs, and to make decisions. But sometimes situations donít meet our expectations, both because we find ourselves not meeting our objectives, and also because we view these situations as inconsistent with our expectations and all of our other knowledge related to them.

As individual persons then, we sometimes reach a point where it seems to us that we need new knowledge to accomplish our objectives and goals. We also believe that we canít proceed toward them without a period, however small or large, of search and inquiry, during which we "figure out" what to do; that is, we go about solving our problem. So I want us to begin by recognizing that every decision and action we take involves knowledge use, but, in addition, some subset of decisions and actions, those involving inquiry, search behavior, or problem solving, are instances of knowledge processing.

In my first blog on "All Life is Problem Solving", I wrote about Popperís theory of problem solving and presented a graphic showing his model and its relationship to expectations and behavior. In Figure 1 below, I make a slight modification of that model to visualize the distinction between knowledge use and knowledge processing. At this point, some of you may ask: Where do problems come from? How do we come to recognize them? What motivates us to doubt our expectations, even in the presence of "objections from reality" to even consider that we have a problem?

A picture named Poppersthree-stepmodelKPKU.JPG

Figure 1 -- Knowledge Making, Knowledge
Processing, and Knowledge Use

My answer is that we are, with variations caused by genetic endowment and previous individual experience, built that way. That is, our predispositions are complex. We are predisposed to pursue our goals and objectives, but to varying degrees we are also predisposed to look for problems and to recognize when we lack knowledge to decide. We have previous knowledge that lets us suspect that, given a situation, we may have a problem. And when we suspect that we may have a problem, we may then either use previous knowledge to recognize what that problem is, or, alternatively, we may use such knowledge to decide that we must solve another problem of determining what the first problem is. In short, there is no magic here. The recognition of problems emerges from knowledge use and problem solving. There is no third category of activity in personal knowledge processing.

The "bottom line" here, applying Popperís Theory, is that personal knowledge processing is analyzable into recognizing problems, formulating attempted solutions, and eliminating errors. What about Personal Knowledge Management (PKM)? What is it and where does it fit?

Personal Knowledge Management

I think, in accord with the theory of problem solving, that Personal Knowledge Management is activity we perform in order to improve our problem recognition, formulating attempted solutions, and error elimination activities. And I think everyone does it in some measure, in the sense that everyone performs some activities to help themselves perform activities in each of these areas.

Personal knowledge management can overlap with interpersonal knowledge management, group-level knowledge management, and organizational knowledge management. For one thing, we identify with groups and organizations we are participants in, and sometimes take group and organizational level problems as our own. For another, our efforts at personal knowledge management, may be part of a more comprehensive pattern of group or organizational knowledge management without our knowing that they are, and without our intending to make such a contribution. So, personal KM, group-level KM, and organizational KM, are not disjoint sets of activities. Moreover, groups and organizations may decide to reinforce personal KM in order to enhance KM at the group or organizational levels; and some analysts, like myself, are of the opinion that enhancing personal KM enables individuals to improve self-organization around knowledge processing, in each of the three areas of problem solving.

Steve Barth, now the editor for KM Magazine has led the charge for personal KM. His view of it was first stated in KM Magazine (2000) in "The Power of One", and more recently was amplified in KM World in "Three Thousand Communities of Practice", and a post he offered to the AOK Groupís discussion on PKM and Interpersonal KM (IPKM). Steve is also the author of a KMWorld column on PKM. Denham Grey has made influential statements on the subject emphasizing the non-social aspects of PKM in his blog. More recently, David Gurteen and Lilia Efimova have added well-written statements in AOKís discussion of PKM/IPKM.

The view emerging from these and associated discussions is that PKM may be focused on the individual, but that it is not a lone individual that is its focus. Rather it is an individual at the nexus of various social networks and information streams. Moreover, even though Steve Barthís emphasis in various articles has been on tools for supporting PKM, he, as well as everyone else who has commented on the subject, emphasizes that the core of PKM is not tools and techniques; but rather individual processes of acquiring, creating, and communicating knowledge or information. In the wake of this vigorous discussion of PKM, I want to comment on a number of its aspects.

PKM and the Interactions Among Cultural, Explicit Mental, and Non-Conscious Knowledge

In individual systems, the theory of knowledge making suggests that problem production, formulating alternative solutions, and error elimination, are important sub-processes in problem solving or knowledge production. At the organizational level, a second knowledge process, knowledge integration, is very important for distributing knowledge. At the individual system level, however, knowledge must be organized and maintained through a process of knowledge storage and organization. The names of the sub-processes immediately suggest only explicit knowledge processing (of cultural products) is involved here. Thereís more to this than meets the eye, though. Individuals learn explicitly by forming, testing and evaluating beliefs as well as claims. And each of the above processes has a psychological (and not just a cultural/linguistic) side in which new beliefs are formulated, tested and evaluated.

In fact, in personal knowledge processing, our efforts to formulate new knowledge claims are in constant interaction with our efforts to formulate new beliefs. In addition to the explicit learning of both the cultural and mental varieties that goes on in these sub-processes, theory suggests that individuals also learn non-explicitly from all activities they engage in, because the capacity to do so is inherent in our brains and associated biological systems. In fact, evidence from neuro-science suggests that all our conscious experience is accompanied by non-conscious learning that produces knowledge that is inaccessible to consciousness. And evidence from psychology suggests that this same experience is also accompanied by non-conscious learning producing changed mental predispositions (changes to our attitudes and values). So, even though personal knowledge processing is about problem solving and explicit learning, we must keep in mind that its products include non-conscious biological and mental knowledge as well.

PKM and Complexity

In performing these sub-processes and all other activities as well, individuals are embedded in a social, cultural, economic, and ecological, context containing multiple complex adaptive systems in which they participate throughout their lives, which affect their decisions and actions, and which they affect, with those same decisions and actions. Their families, enterprise environments, voluntary associations, nation-states, the international system, the world eco-system, are all CASs in which they participate intermittently from time-to-time. Individuals are at the nexus of these systems and must integrate all of their transactions with them in such a way as to maintain the individualsí coherence and identity. They use their knowledge to do this, and that is a large part of what adaptation is about.

The important direct outcomes of personal knowledge processing are knowledge claims and beliefs and reasons for thinking that oneís knowledge claims and beliefs may be relied on in decision making. These claims and beliefs are stored in oneís media (documents and information systems) and oneís brain (memory). The combination of the two, I call The Personal Knowledge Base (PKB). It is the mental aspect of the PKB that individuals use in decision making.

A classification of PKM activities includes:

-- Building Relationships with others practicing PKM;

-- Producing Knowledge about Personal Knowledge Processing;

-- Storing and Organizing Knowledge about Personal Knowledge Processing;

-- Crisis Handling;

-- Resource Allocation; and

-- Changing Knowledge Processing Rules

A more detailed classification of PKM activities may be given by cross-classifying the personal knowledge processing and PKM categories: e.g. PKM activities aimed at changing knowledge processing rules used in error elimination.

I hope you can see that the framework Iíve just given is immediately helpful in clarifying some issues in PKM.

  1. It suggests that PKM is "social" in the sense that all decisions and actions, including those involved in knowledge production, occur in, and are influenced by, a social context, and therefore "personal knowledge is socially constructed". But
  2. it also suggests that PKM does not imply that personal knowledge must be socially validated. For one thing, the social construction of personal knowledge is not dependent on one social context, but on many. For another, the individual must integrate a variety of socially constructed perspectives in evaluating knowledge and in deciding which knowledge claims and beliefs "match" experience better than others. In performing this sort of activity, the individual acts as an autonomous system. Its knowledge claim and belief evaluation activity is "emergent" and is influenced by differing social contexts, biological factors (e.g. synaptic structures and brain functioning), psychological predispositions (attitudes and values), and tacit, implicit, and explicit situational orientations.
  3. The framework also suggests some ideas about the current focus of Personal Knowledge Management Practices and Tools. Much of the literature of PKM focuses on: (a) tools for organizing information resident on oneís computer and retrieving that information as an aid in using it in decision making or developing new ideas, (b) tools for enhanced searching and retrieving on the web, and (c) tools for visualizing conceptual relationships that are useful in clarifying oneís ideas and developing new ones. The first and third of these overlap somewhat, especially in such areas as portal interface navigation tools such as The BrainEKP.

PKM has thus far experienced almost no focus on tools, practices and procedures for evaluating knowledge claims and beliefs. This area is vital to PKM because it is about the quality of oneís knowledge, about eliminating errors in it, about distinguishing oneís knowledge from oneís information, and ultimately about making good decisions.

Another area that I donít think is much focused on in PKM is resource allocation. Resource allocation is one of the most important activities in KM. At bottom, it involves prioritization and risk assessment. But I havenít seen much discussion of tools such as ExpertChoice, and techniques such as the Analytic Hierarchy Process in PKM.

PKM, IPKM, and Enterprise KM (EKM)

IPKM is about systems containing two or more individuals relating in a peer-to-peer fashion on an on-going basis. The formal hierarchy that exists in the enterprise is not there, and the scope of interaction in systems practicing IPKM is much narrower than the scope of interaction in enterprises. Knowledge processing and KM activities in the IPKM context are more similar to EKM processes than PKM processes. In the IPKM context, knowledge production includes: problem production, information acquisition, individual learning, knowledge claim formulation, and knowledge claim evaluation. Knowledge integration is relevant to the IPKM context. iIs sub-processes are: knowledge and information broadcasting, searching and retrieving, teaching, and sharing. The Distributed Organizational Knowledge Base (DOKB) replaces the PKB used in the PKM framework.

The KM activities in the IPKM context include: Building External Relationships, Symbolic Representation of Authority, Leadership, KM-Level Knowledge Production, KM-Level Knowledge Integration, Crisis Handling, Resource Allocation, Negotiating Resources with others, and Changing Knowledge processing Rules. Mark McElroy and I have discussed this framework in our book Key Issues in the New Knowledge Management, Burlington, MA: KMCI Press, 2003, Chs. 1-6. You can also see some graphics at KMCI.

Since Knowledge Processing and KM sub-processes and activities in IPKM are highly similar to those in EKM, itís not surprising that the techniques, procedures, tools and practices of IPKM are also highly similar. This is especially true in the area of informal structures and processes where CoPs, Story-telling, Knowledge Cafes, Facilitation methods, Collaboration Tools, and Social Network analysis would all be relevant. In addition, practices, tools, etc. that are important in PKM would also be relevant to IPKM since anything that enhances Personal Knowledge processing is likely to have a positive impact on IPKM.

The present state of IPKM is similar to the state of PKM in that knowledge claim evaluation and resource allocation and prioritization practices, tools, etc. are not well-developed. I think progress in these areas would be important for the further progress of IPKM.

Finally, though PKM and IPKM are often contrasted with EKM, I think the progress of EKM is related to the progress of both of these areas. The "bottom-up" approach to EKM is essentially based on a similar insight, which recognizes that formal organizations are dependent on the enhanced functioning of individuals and groups, for their own enhanced functioning.

For More Information

In addition to the book referred to earlier, youíll find much more information on the theories and models offered in this paper, and on training in the New Knowledge Management at three web sites:,, and Many papers on the New Knowledge Management are available for downloading there. Our Excerpt from The Open Enterprise . . . may also be purchased there. Our print books are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Butterworth-Heinemann/Elsevier. Finally, there will be many more blogs coming and these will apply the point of view expressed here to many of the major issues in Knowledge Management today.

5:57:01 PM    comment []

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